According to Tea Master Tanaka, chanoyu is “an art of communication between people, undertaken in the Zen spirit of sincerity and purity of mind.”
Introduced from China during the Nara period (710-84 CE), tea drinking evolved from an aristocratic pastime to a spiritual practice. While the nobility enjoyed tea as a sophisticated component of entertaining, Buddhist temples used powdered green tea (matcha) as a stimulant during meditation. As the wealthy merchant class adopted tea drinking as a status symbol, Zen Buddhism distilled human activities into opportunities for mindful awareness. Zen masters of chanoyu, the tea ceremony, promulgated the art among their secular disciples as a means of serene detachment and communal harmony. Providing many opportunities for aesthetic expression, chanoyu included traditional arts of calligraphy and painting, flower arranging, ceramics, and naturally, gardening. The traditional tea garden emerged from this unique combination of the middle class lifestyle and aesthetic sensibilities.
Modeled after rustic pavilions in courtly gardens, the tea house and its surrounding garden represented a retreat from worldly distractions. Simple materials and humble actions combined to immerse participants in Sado, the Way of Tea, raising their awareness of spiritual reality.
Guests entered the garden through a simple gate separate from the main entrance of a house. Like their counterparts the world over, merchants typically lived in rooms adjoining their business, possibly with a small yard for household needs. A wealthy family might have enough property for a private garden and shelter, providing a retreat from worldly concerns. This modest gate represents a transition from the bustle of public concerns to the peace of private thoughts.
The path to the tea house meanders through a small naturalistic garden. The mossy, uneven paving stones encourage a slow pace and time to appreciate the quiet beauty of one’s surroundings. No flashy plants or distracting artifacts interrupt the serenity.
A stone water basin and simple lantern allowed guests to pause and symbolically purify themselves by rinsing the hands and mouth before entering the tea house.
The tea house blends into its surroundings, large enough for only a few guests, an alcove for art, and the simple implements for making tea.
After greeting the guests, the host offers a simple dish like this bean paste sweet. The method of preparing and serving tea, as well as the act of receiving and drinking it, are all carefully orchestrated according to traditional teachings.
We enjoyed a tea ceremony at a private residence in Kyoto. Although it was Westernized in many respects, it gave a fascinating glimpse of traditional culture. The precise, sequenced movements closely resembled a religious ritual, serving to quiet the guests and focus their attention.
The most famous garden in Japan is probably the Rock Garden (c. 1500) at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto. Often baffling foreign visitors, the space defies both simple answers and photography. Expansive temple grounds feature elements of a traditional Paradise garden with a man-made pond, islands, and meandering paths.
A view over Kyoyochi pond.
The way to the main temple passes antiquities nestled into the landscape, creating a contemplative mood.
A worn flight of steps slows the approach to Kuri, the main building of the temple and the entrance to the Rock Garden.
This is the layout in miniature, consisting only of white sand and fifteen rocks seated in slowly accreted cushions of moss. Attributed to Tokuho Zenketsu, the space is considered to be the quintessential expression of Zen art, a physical embodiment of the seven spiritual characteristics of Zen according to philosopher Hisamatsu.
The scholarly work referenced above is a definitive text on Japanese Gardens –now out of print. It offers comprehensive and profound analysis that informed my experience of Japanese design and aesthetics. A modern text with beautiful photographs that I would recommend is Japanese Stone Gardens by Stephen Mansfield.
Finally, a view of the east end of the garden. Measuring 25 m wide and 10 m deep, wide angle lenses warp the space, failing to capture an accurate image. Rhythmically arranged in groups of seven-five-three across the raked sand, the rocks rise like ancient islands. But direct symbolic interpretations are both unintended and irrelevant to the composition according to Zen principles. The rich color patterning the south wall is created by ancient linseed oil leaching from the clay, adding an unpredictable, wabi-sabi character material. Below, a view of the west end of the garden. This truly is a space that needs to be experienced in person to understand the ambiance created by such humble materials.
The sense of reverence generated by the landscape is almost palpable. Visitors for the most part are quiet and thoughtful, scrupulously respecting the integrity of the space. There are no barriers between guests and gravel, all observe from a narrow wooden platform stretching across the north end of the temple. I sat here with Dr. Armitage discussing the “meaning” of what lay before us, when he dropped his brochure onto the precisely raked gravel….fortunately, I was able to lean out a retrieve it before a monk came along to scold.
A group of fellow Garden Vistas travelers, Bill, Alison, Shigeto, and Gloria, enjoy the view.